Kilili, Torres want 10-year extension of CW program

Labor, biz groups outline immediate fixes to CW crisis
Workforce and business leaders met with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) on current issues with the contract worker program at the Office of the Governor conference room yesterday. (Dennis B. Chan)

Workforce and business leaders met with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) on current issues with the contract worker program at the Office of the Governor conference room yesterday. (Dennis B. Chan)

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) will introduce a bill in U.S. Congess next week to extend the CNMI’s contract worker program for 10 years with a cap set at 18,000 workers.

Sablan, who will be introducing the bill the same week that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres begins official talks with White House special representative Esther Kia’aina on remedies to local labor and immigration issues, among others, disclosed this at a meeting with business and labor groups on Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon.

“Why don’t I just go ahead and push for status like I did before? I want to but the composition of Congress has changed,” Sablan said, noting Republican ranks that have ousted its own Republicans like former Rep. Eric Cantor in primary election, and how they “kicked out” former House speaker John Boehner.

“…That’s power,” Sablan said.

Society of Human Resources Management immediate past president Frank Gibson called the bill “necessary.” “The present bill was done during a time of declining economy. We are out of that now. We need to have a continuation of the program. It’s just something that is logical at this point.”

The business and labor groups pressed Sablan and Torres yesterday on immediate fixes to the current contract worker crisis, which stems from a breached worker cap this fiscal year and the federal government’s notice last month that they would reject CW petitions received after a May 5, 2016 deadline and that these foreign workers whose petitions were rejected and their families would be required to leave the CNMI no later than 10 days after their permits expire.

That means approximately 1,300 workers have been affected by the federal government’s decision, not including family members, the SHRM NMI Chapter, Hotel Association of the Northern Marianas Islands, and the Saipan and Chamber of Commerce said in joint resolution issued yesterday.

These 1,300 workers “represents 15 percent of the total workforce currently in the day-to-day operations of existing CNMI businesses,” the resolution states.

Tan Holdings vice president Alex Sablan also warned of a huge shift of this contract worker bulk to construction workers. In the meeting with Delegate Sablan and Torres, he noted a potential 80 to 85 percent of current workers being replaced by new construction workers for development projects, which would cause the economy to “immediately” collapse.

Alex Sablan was referring to recent CNMI Department of Labor numbers that show they have approved 5,284 workers to be exempt in the workforce participation for construction project purposes. These workers are “related to the Grand Mariana project,” DOL said, or Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC’s casino resort in Garapan.

“That is absolutely something we want to stress here,” said Alex Sablan. “If nothing is done, between May 5, the timeline that they provided for, and the end of the year, next year’s quota will be filled by these workers. So what we are talking about here is the entire economy collapsing because they are filled by construction workers versus the people that are operating our economy, the current CW workforce.”

Joint resolution

The joint resolution urges a slew of federal agencies and departments and the CNMI government to work together to adopt necessary, comprehensive, and workable reforms to the CNMI-only transitional worker program.

Among many others, the joint resolutions asks the federal government to recognize the hardship that this unexpected situation places on foreign workers and their families, as well as on businesses that are losing key staff without replacements, and that they work together to find ways to allow these foreign workers and their families to remain in the CNMI and work and be counted toward the CW-1 cap for FY 2017.

The groups ask that USCIS hold all extension petitions that are affected by the CW-1 caps for fiscal year 2016, neither rejecting nor denying them, and allow the foreign workers who are affected to remain in lawful status while their petitions are pending.

This means that a current regulation would also allow the workers for up to 240 days, that is up to October 2016, at which time the CW-1 visa petition could be approved pursuant to the CW-1 cap for fiscal year 2017 and for a period that allows a one-year extension.

“All [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] has to do is sit on petitions,” said SHRM immediate past president Frank Gibson said, “hold them, and while petitions are pending [they] are in lawful status, and when they are in lawful status, they can work for 240 days, which will take us to October.”

The joint resolution ties into concerns with construction workers eating up a bulk of the contract worker cap, when these workers can apply for H-category visas.

“If the companies themselves will not restrict themselves to putting employees on the proper visa—maybe we need to regulate it,” Gibson told reporters yesterday.

The groups asks that the local labor department implement and process or come up with a system—with the assistance of the federal agencies—where it can identify the types of job that CW-1 petitions have been submitted for and CW-1 visas approved so that the CNMI can better plan for the transition period and phase-out of the CNMI nonresident contract worker program.

It asks that USCIS “immediately identifies and returns” any pending or future CW-petitions for foreign workers who may be H-1 or H-2 eligible and requires that the appropriate visa category and petition be filed for these foreign workers.

They notably ask that USCIS “immediately reverses the approval of CW-1 petitions for temporary, project-specific H-2B visa eligible construction workers who are not presently in the CNMI and that these CW-1 petitions for such categories of construction workers should not be included in the CW-1 cap for FY 2016.”

And that USCIS rejects all CW petitions for temporary, project specific H-2B visa eligible construction workers that are submitted in the future.

The groups, among others, ask USCIS to identify long-term foreign workers and develop a system to reserve sufficient numbers of CW-1 visas within the fiscal year cap specifically for foreign workers who have had CW-1 status for at least five years and who filed for renewal or extension within ninety-one (91) days of the expiration of their respective CW-1 visas.

They also ask the CNMI government, by statutory or regulatory change, require all businesses to follow the established prevailing wages for all positions, including for all CW-1 and H-category visas.

“…The [Consolidated Natural Resources Act] was passed at a time when the CNMI economy was in a decline and that the CNRA is no longer appropriate for the CNMI’s present situation,” the groups state, urging the CNMI governor and U.S. representative to work together with the federal government to amend applicable law and regulations to achieve the “CNRA’s objective that the transition period would minimize adverse economic and fiscal effects to the CNMI and its people and maximize the CNMI’s potential for future economic and business growth.”

“Because of the upswing in investment in the Commonwealth, the demand for skilled and unskilled labor presently outpaces the available labor pool,” SHRM said in a separate statement. “The law no longer fits our situation and, if not amended, will be disastrous for the CNMI.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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